Currently Smoking: Excalibur Dark Knight
When The Godfather came out in 1972, it not only changed cinema, but crime as well. Francis Ford Coppola’s films not only changed the way that the American public looked at the Mafia, but changed how mafiosi viewed themselves. While Italian and Sicilian gangsters have always been part of America’s 20th Century criminal underworld, they now saw themselves as something more. The Mafia was romanticized. Instead of being seen as cold blooded racketeers, they were seen as “men of honor”, and that “mafiosi were members of a respected, benevolent society of deserving superior people.” Federal Agents often heard mobsters mimic the film, and looked to it as a way to conduct themselves (1).
In the very opening scene of The Godfather, an Italian immigrant goes to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to deliver the justice that the American justice system has denied him. Though the beginning words of the film are “I believe in America.”, the scene is a clear indictment of the American judicial system. The sudden inflated ego of mobsters was identified in a 1977 Times article as The Godfather Syndrome. It should be noted that not all mobsters felt this way. When asked what he thought of The Godfather, New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello responded with:
Dat Stuff? It’s like one of them fairy tales. Like Sleepin Beauty and de Seven Dwarfs.(2)
The Mafia may not have been the first criminal organization to enjoy an inflated sense of self worth because of a movie. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) could have had a very similar effect.
While there was no Mafia in Germany’s post WWI Weimar Republic, there was organized crime. Criminal syndicates known as the Ringvereine or Ring Associations operated in the backstreets of Berlin (3). The harsh post-war reparations which the Allies demanded from Germany strangulated its economy. This economic hardship would not only give rise to organized crime, but it would also lay the foundation which would allow the Nazi Party to come into power.
The origins of the Ringvereine can be traced to the late 19th Century, when clubs and associations became popular in Germany. Acting as sports associations, these clubs actually were made up of ex-convicts which would serve as a front for organized crime. These clubs would take part in prostitution, the narcotics trade, and protection rackets. Much like the American Mafia, only men were allowed to join these clubs; which would look after a member’s family when he was sent to prison or was killed (5).
Also like organized crime in America, there was a violent incident which brought the Ringvereine into the public’s eye. On December 28, 1928, members of the Immertreu (“Always Local”) and Norden (“North”) Ringvereine crime syndicates, dressed in coats and top hats, entered a pub near Berlin’s Silesian Station. The gangsters were there to confront a man named Schulniess, a leader of a group of Hamburg carpenters, who had stabbed a Ringvereine member an hour earlier. The leader of the Ringvereine, who was known as “Muscle” Adolf, demanded a large sum of money for the injured gangster’s medical bills. After Schulniess refused, a pub brawl began. In Christian Goeschel’s, The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin, he describes the battle:
“The carpenters, helped by the bricklayers from the same construction site, attacked the top-hatted men with their tools. Muscle-Adolf and his men fought back, but were forced outside. Schulniess was severely injured. Someone called the police who briefly restored order. As soon as the police left, Muscle-Adolf’s men alerted other Ringvereine, who arrived almost at once. A street battle erupted, involving some 200 men. A bricklayer was beaten up so badly that he later died in the hospital. Eyewitnesses heard between twenty and thirty gunshots.”
Muscle Adolf, and eight other members of the Immertreu syndicate were arrested, and admitted to their part in the fight, but denied killing the bricklayer. For fear of retaliation, the public was hesitant to testify (6).
Released one year after the Nazi Party’s land slide victory in the Reichstag election, M was a social criticism of the crumbling Weimar Republic (4). The authorities not being able to do anything about a series of child murders has disrupted the business of the underworld so drastically; the organized criminal rings of Berlin decide to start their own manhunt for the killer. Distrust of the state and its ability to deliver justice is a common theme that M shares with The Godfather. At the end of the movie the criminals capture the serial killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), and put him on trial in front of a kangaroo court; which shortly demands his death. Before the sentence is carried out, the police conveniently interrupt the proceedings and arrest both Beckert and the gangsters.
Both film’s distrust of the state can be further seen with the portrayal of authority figures. In The Godfather, besides the FBI agents seen at the beginning of the film, corrupt Irish cop Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is the only law enforcement character we see in the film. On the payroll rival gangster and drug pusher Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the first impression we get of McCluskey is brutish; punching out Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) after he fears there will be another assassination attempt on his father. In M, law enforcement is criticized with ineptitude with the overweight and gluttonous Inspector Karl “Fatty” Lohmann (Otto Wernicke).
Besides the distrust of the state and the extension of it with authority figures, the criminals in both films feel the need to protect children. Though this need to protect children is an extension to protect profit. At the end of The Godfather, the fictitious Mafia organizations from around the country gather to talk about the newly sanctioned narcotics business. Detroit Mafia boss Giuseppe Zaluchi (Louis Guss) says:
“I also don’t believe in drugs. For years I paid my people extra so they wouldn’t do that kind of business. Somebody comes to them and says,”I have powders; if you put up three, four thousand dollar investment, we can make fifty thousand distributing.” So they can’t resist. I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don’t want it near schools! I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”
In an effort to profit off of the drug trade, the Mafia believes it is shielding society by keeping narcotics away from children and schools and selling it to what they see is an undesirable caste of the population. The only reason the gangsters in M join the manhunt for the child killer is because police raids across the city keep disrupting business.
But did M have the same effect on the Ringvereine as The Godfather did on the Mafia?
The Weimar Republic’s morbid fascination with criminals and serial killers mirrored America’s fascination with gangsters (7). Goeschel’s study of the Ringvereine supports this thesis; in which he claims that after the release of M, the Ringvereine was seen as “a self-policing crime syndicate, maintaining law and order instead of the inefficient police force (8).” Though they may have had a very similar effect on romanticizing organized crime; there is a huge difference between M and The Godfather.
Goeschel claims Muscle Adolf advised Lang on the inner workings of organized crime, and also made actor Gustaf Grundgens, the charismatic leader of the gangsters in M, an honorary member of the criminal brotherhood. This shows that the Ringvereine fully endorsed their portrayal in M.
When The Godfather was being made, Joe Colombo, boss of the New York Colombo Crime Family and the leader of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, was able to threaten Paramount Studios into omitting the terms Mafia and Cosa Nostra from the film. Paramount, mindful that the Mafia’s infiltration of labor unions could threaten production, complied (9). Even though The Godfather was the best PR the Mafia could have ever received, in the beginning it lacked the criminal endorsement which M received. This could be because while the Mafia was a secretive society, while the Ringverine clubs were officially registered under the Reich Association Law (10).
Despite its positive portrayal of criminal syndicates, M contributed to a dissatisfied attitude that many Germans had of the Weimar Republic, which in the long run, would negatively impact the organization.
Among those that agreed M was an indictment of the ineffectiveness of the Weimar Republic were the Nazis. Future Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, welcomed the film’s message. The Nazis would make the elimination of crime a major political issue. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, several sever laws were passed on the prevention of crime. The Application of Preventive Police Detention of Professional Criminals allowed the SS to arrest many Ringvereine members, who were thrown in concentration camps (11). Since all the Ringvereine members were registered with the government, identification and targeting of members was very easy. These crackdowns would climax in 1937 when thousands of gangsters, social, and racial outsiders were arrested in raids. Though the Nazis claimed that they eradicated crime under their regime, Goeschel suggests that the arrest of Muscle Adolf in a post WWII Germany proves that some of the crime syndicates survived the Nazi reign of terror (12).
During production of The Godfather, the before mentioned Joe Colombo was shot while giving a speech at an Italian-American Unity Day Rally on June 28, 1971. While the assassination attempt failed, it left Colombo a vegetable . The man responsible for Colombo’s attempted assassination, the renegade mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo, was himself assassinated on April 7 1972, while celebrating his birthday at Umberto’s Clam House. While The Godfather had only been playing for a few weeks, the Colombo-Gallo War was over (13).
The problem with The Godfather is that it made the Mafia popular. Though it would enjoy the zenith of its power in the 1970s and the early 1980s , its downfall would soon arise. In 1985, based on evidence gathered by FBI, United States Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani brought the heads of the Five Families in New York on trial. Using the RICO (Racketeering Influence Corrupt Organizations) Act, Giuliani was able to get a 100 year sentence for each of the bosses of the Five Families (Paul Castellano – Gambino Crime Family (assassinated before his prison sentence) , Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno – Genovese Crime Family, Carmine Persico – Colombo Crime Family, Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo – Lucchesse Crime Family, Philip “Rusty” Rastelli – Bonanno Crime Family) (14).
While the Ringvereine is extinct, and the American Mafia is in steady decline, both films that portray these two criminal organizations are still considered cinematic classics.
*While I am aware that M was remade in America in 1951, it failed to have the impact on both cinema and crime that both the original M and The Godfather had.
(1) Rabb, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2006. 196. Print.
(2) Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. 542. Print.
(3) Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. 379. Print.
(4) Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(5) Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(6)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(7) Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. 134. Print.
(8)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(9)Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2005. 189. Print.
(10)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(11) Wachsmann, Nikolaus. Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. 167. Print.
(12)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(13) Rabb, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2006. 197. Print.
(14) Rabb, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2006. 197. Print.